Death, Philosophy

Goodbye, Holidays–Hello, Blue Puffy Comforter

I have almost always found the Holidays to be delightful, but this year, my husband Fred and I had to struggle to find the enjoyment that seemed to come almost effortlessly in years past. We spent Thanksgiving Day in the living room of his mother’s house, eating our dinner off TV trays as my mother-in-law lay a few feet from us in a hospital bed. Also nearby was one of her dedicated caregivers. We all knew that this Thanksgiving was not going to mark the beginning of a time of celebration and togetherness, but rather, the beginning of a painful goodbye to one of the most important persons in our family.

December started with a funeral, but the day after that funeral, my husband started hauling out Christmas decorations. In a way, we were functioning on autopilot, but in a matter of hours, we had enough sparkle, greenery, and strategically placed poinsettias to make our home festive. Was my decorating dynamic and original? No—but I got it done. Was my shopping inspired? No—but I got it done. Was my gift-wrapping lovely? No—but I got it done. And with each Holiday activity completed, my husband and I began to feel a bit more normal.

One of the mantels in our house.

One of the mantels in our house.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, Fred and I felt a tremendous sense of relief that we had managed to make it through a complicated, rather sad, Holiday Season without falling apart. We opted for a quiet New Year’s Eve celebration with each other. Our plan was to shoot some pool, have a tasty dinner in one of our local eateries, go to a movie, and then head home to watch the “ball” drop in Times Square. A special bottle of Prosecco (a Christmas gift from our daughter and son-in-law) was chilling in the refrigerator so that we could toast the New Year.

We hit a glitch right away because I had forgotten that my right hand, post-arthroplasty, could not handle a pool cue, so we nixed that part of our plan. But our New Year’s Eve dinner was lovely, and it felt so pleasant to be eating fine food, surrounded by convivial people—it just felt so REGULAR. Seated at our cozy table for two, Fred and I simultaneously heaved a profound sigh and reached for each other’s hand.   Although the support of family and friends, and the comforts of long-established family traditions, had helped us deal with the loss of Fred’s mother, our support of each other had been the essential element that had buttressed us. That night, we celebrated what seemed to be a turning point—the end of bad times and the beginning of better ones—but above all else, we celebrated our partnership and the strength it had given us.

After dinner and a movie, Fred and I headed for home and the Prosecco. However, it did not take us long to realize that watching the “ball” drop was an impossibility—we were too pooped and had the good sense to head for bed.

Now comes the “blue puffy comforter” part of my ruminations. On New Year’s Eve day, I had completely winterized the master bed: flannel sheets, a fleece blanket, and my beloved blue, puffy comforter. Our brick 1833 farmhouse, although an interesting old place, is not the warmest abode on the planet, but this comforter has been keeping me cozy for years, no matter how frigid the temperatures become. Swaddled in my pink L. L. Bean lady’s long johns (perhaps the least attractive sleepwear known to humankind), sandwiched between fresh flannel sheets, cocooned in the warmth created by my comforter, and bolstered by a lovely evening shared with my husband, I experienced moments of pure happiness and contentment. Briefly, I forgot about illness, death, and loss. Memories of hospital beds, funeral homes, and a desolate wintry cemetery had dissipated. I was alive, warm, satisfied, and even hopeful about the coming year.

No spiffy outfit, no boisterous gathering, no late-night jocularity, no ball-drop in Times Square. Instead, pink long johns, a quiet wife-husband date, a few sips of Prosecco, and the homely pleasure of my puffy comforter. Even without a game of pool, this New Year’s Eve was pretty close to perfect.

Drink, Food, Philosophy

Three Cheers for Leftovers!

According to my mother, my father worries that I have become a hedonist. I most certainly do not agree with this assessment. Do I love to travel, eat expensive food, drink pricey wines, and wear stylish clothes? Most certainly YES. But are these the only ways I find pleasure? Most certainly NOT!

Last night’s dinner was a case in point. My husband Fred and I have a refrigerator full of leftovers from the Christmas Holidays. My daughter and son-in-law stayed with us during the past week, and our grocery list was full of every food we could think of to satisfy their tastes and needs. Now that they have returned to their own abode in Falmouth, Cornwall (U.K.), Fred and I are devising ways to use the disparate food stuffs and leftovers that are overflowing our refrigerator shelves. I decided to use leftover mushrooms, goat cheese, and mashed potatoes to come up with something satisfying for our dinner. Since I am writing a blog about the results, it is probably unnecessary for me to say that our meal was totally satisfying.

I devised this menu:

. Spinach salad with walnuts, goat cheese balls rolled in crushed walnuts, sliced mushrooms, and a walnut oil/balsamic vinaigrette;

. Sautéed Potato Cakes (really, a kind of potato croquette);

. Mushroom Ragu (à la Giada De Laurentiis, of Food Network fame).

First, let me say that these days, I accomplish my cooking by primarily using my left hand. In November, I had wrist reconstruction on my right hand because of an arthritic thumb joint that had deteriorated. Even with my unhelpful right hand, this dish was not very difficult to prepare, and that is the first thing to commend it.

Second, I have learned a perfect way to prepare leftover mashed potatoes that are “begging” to be transformed into potato cakes: For each three-inch scoop of potatoes, I add a heaping teaspoon of flour to give the cakes body. I used this ratio to turn five scoops of potatoes into five potato cakes, rolling them into flour before sautéing them.

Third, I made the ragu MOSTLY according to Giada’s recipe ( ). For those who are interested, Giada asked for a variety of mushrooms in this recipe. I used porcinis, creminis, and shitakes, and that combination turned out to be delicious. However, I suspect any kind of mushroom combination would have worked well. (Special thanks to my husband who purchased the freshest, meatiest, most beautiful shitakes I have ever seen.) Giada’s recipe also required Marsala wine, but I had leftover Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which turned out to be a lovely addition to the ragu. Remember to improvise and use what you have at hand!

After taking a bite of the potato cake smothered in ragu, my husband said things like “wow” and “luscious.” I consider that to be his imprimatur on the meal. Our dinner was lovely (although, I have to admit that it was not the low-carb meal I should be consuming right now!!!). Above all else, this meal shows that even leftovers can be transformed into a dining experience that is filling, fulfilling, and pretty darn easy to prepare.

Spinach salad with walnut-encrusted goat cheese

Spinach salad with walnut-encrusted goat cheese

Giada's "Mushroom Ragu" with Potato Cake

Giada’s “Mushroom Ragu” with Potato Cake

So, am I a hedonist? Maybe a little bit. But an Appalachian country girl like me knows the value of conserving and re-purposing. After all, I come from a family that had the imagination to sometimes have “Breakfast-for-Dinner” evenings toward the end of the month, when the budget would not allow for meat-centric meals with all of the trimmings. We knew how to turn pancakes, eggs, toast, and hot chocolate into something scrumptious and satisfying when steak was not available. “Pleasure” can be achieved with good planning, parsimony, and creativity.

Last night, my husband and I indulged in that kind of “Careful Hedonism.”

And, by the way—not to contradict myself too radically—I did supplement my dinner with a glass of a New York State Pinot Noir from the Ravines Winery ( ). It was the perfect accompaniment to our meal; not too pricey, and definitely delightful. My husband chose a bottle of Trader Jose’s Dark Lager, further proving that great tastes do not have to break the bank.

Art, Music, Philosophy

Musings on Art–Visceral or Cerebral?

A close friend of mine recently saw Lisa Fischer in concert, and her description of that experience triggered for me a day of YouTube video-watching, plus some serious reflection about ART vs. ENTERTAINMENT. Ms. Fischer has always been a scintillating performer, but when you watch her in the film Twenty Feet from Stardom, and when you listen to her recent jazz-infused vocal interpretations, you realize she has metamorphosed over the years, becoming something other than the admittedly awesome singer strutting her stuff onstage with Mick Jagger—which is saying something, because Fischer can really rock a song. But the mature Lisa Fischer can take you to a place that is more cerebral before she provokes a visceral response to her music. I suspect that jazz itself—which I confess that I have never truly understood—requires a cerebral response from the listener who must analyze the way a musician moves “around” a musical line while never losing touch with that line.

“Early Lisa” and “Now Lisa” (Images courtesy of RocknVivo and Berklee College of Music.)

                Thus, I have been pondering if the greatest art, and the greatest artists, always possess a cerebral component that supersedes pure entertainment. Here is a literary example that provokes the same question.

A member of my family recently saw the Henry Fonda film version of The Grapes of Wrath, and after enjoying her viewing experience, she asked me if she could borrow my copy of the novel. Of course I agreed to lend her the novel, but I had some misgivings about what her response to the novel would be. The “intercalary” chapters of Steinbeck’s masterwork—almost like pure poetry, or pure philosophy, or a combination of the two (philosophical poetry? poetic philosophy?)—have become, for me, the greatest pleasure of the novel. In those chapters, Steinbeck achieves his greatest verbal mastery; his “prose” soars, and his observations about humankind illuminate and underpin the story he tells. However, they do break up the narrative flow of the novel, and understanding their connection to the novel as a whole requires analysis—it is an intellectual endeavor that only intensifies a story that is profoundly moving.

Sadly, those chapters provided too much of an obstacle for my relative. She returned the book to me without finishing it, telling me it was a bit “too literary” for her tastes. She wanted a “good story,” and there is nothing wrong with that. I read all of the time just hoping to lose myself inside a “good story.” The Grapes of Wrath most definitely has a powerful story to tell, and it packs a visceral wallop. However, that novel is more than a good read; it rises to the level of “art” because of (among other things) Steinbeck’s mastery of language, clarity of vision, unique narrative structure, and sense of humanity. To appreciate his achievement, a reader must be willing to analyze as well as to feel. In fact, precisely by ANALYZING, one FEELS even more.

I suppose that like all musings, my ART vs. ENTERTAINMENT meditation has led to even more questions. If true art must possess a cerebral component, and elicit a cerebral response as well as a visceral one—and I am not sure that is true, although I suspect it is—then is there some kind of perfect equilibrium between the cerebral and visceral in the greatest works of art? Does too much need for the intellect destroy our enjoyment of the art form, turning our experience of the form into a cold intellectual exercise?

I have no absolute answers to these questions. For me, a “good” painting, book, song, or movie has to touch my mind as well as my heart. Still, understanding examples of all of these genres may over-tax my mental faculties, leaving me cold and becoming empty intellectual mind games. Sometimes, I just like to have fun—reading for fun, listening to music for fun, letting a movie just carry me away from mundane demands. Nothing wrong with that!

I will conclude my musings where I began them, with a final observation about Lisa Fischer. She seems to possess various modes of artistic genius—she is a genius at expressing raw sexual power; she is a genius at expressing the deepest human emotions; and she is a genius at using her voice to make us think, as well as feel. She is incomprehensibly multi-faceted; she is cerebral as well as visceral; she is—as I said earlier—awesome.

And I am really, really jealous that my friend got to see Ms. Fischer perform live!